Your browser is no longer supported. For the best experience of this website, please upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Why fashion is recruiting outside the box

recruiting outside fashion

As fashion retailers increasingly look outside of the industry to fill leadership roles, Drapers examines what is fuelling the shift and what the benefits may be.

Rising costs, Brexit and a consumer who is spending more on leisure than fashion are just some of the challenges facing fashion retail. Retailers require strong, creative leadership, and are increasingly searching outside the fashion industry to fill executive roles.

Eyebrows were raised in May over two such appointments: House of Fraser’s new chief executive, Alex Williamson, joins next month from Goodwood and has never worked in retail, and Marks & Spencer’s soon-to-be managing director for clothing, home and beauty, Jill McDonald, is the former CEO of Halfords and has no fashion experience. And it emerged today that House of Fraser has made another new hire from outside of retail – its new chief people officer, Michelle Maynard, joins from Aviva, having previously worked at British Airways, Coca-Cola and The AA.

Headhunters will certainly have their hands full finding creative leaders to fill fashion retail positions. Earlier this month, it emerged that Mamas & Papas chief executive Jonathon Fitzgerald and executive chairman Derek Lovelock had left their roles. Chief operating officer Jason Greenwood has stepped in as interim CEO, but the maternity and babywear specialist will be hunting for a new boss to build on the turnaround Lovelock and Fitzgerald completed.

Elsewhere, former Topshop managing director Mary Homer’s position still stands empty, and just last week Burberry chairman Sir John Peace stood down, leaving a gap to be filled at the luxury brand.

We need to look a little more creatively at skillsets

Mary Anderson-Ford, AquaRetail

Fashion businesses typically recruit from within the industry for their top jobs, but headhunters say the surprise appointments at House of Fraser and M&S signal a shift in approach. They claim a lack of hands-on experience in the field is not necessarily a deterrent for boards that want to hire a leader to navigate the current choppy economic waters.

“In an era when retail seems to be struggling more to keep up with is own innovations, such as ecommerce or logistics developments, we need to look a little more creatively at skillsets,” says Mary Anderson-Ford, managing director at recruiter AquaRetail. “While the expertise of our buyers, merchandisers and ecommerce experts are still focal, perhaps we need a new approach to leadership at the top.”

Outside recruitment

Harveen Gill, managing director at recruitment consultancy HGA Group, agrees: “We’ve been hit by such a tsunami of change. Why shouldn’t retailers bring in people from outside, particularly customer-facing industries?”

She adds that digital and international skills are required now more than ever: “The consumer and technology have changed and we have to ask ourselves whether we have kept up.

“The DNA of a great leader in our sector has changed. They need to be digital visionaries and they need international experience.”

Taking charge of the customer experience is essential for retail leaders in the current climate says Edward Fella, general manager of recruitment agency Le Pont: “It is such a challenging market for retail, and businesses really need someone whose sense of customer experience is second to none.

“You can hire the right executives to manage the product and the creative side of things, but you need someone with a top-line skillset to address the wider picture, make commercial decisions and to pull the business forward.”

James Hyde, director at FH Executive Search, agrees that awareness of the bottom line is fuelling the shift: “There is more desire for accountability in business now. Essentially they are looking for people who can deliver growth and success.”

“It is getting harder to make money in retail,” concurs Fran Minogue, managing partner at executive search company Clarity. “Businesses are looking for more creative solutions to turn their firms around and create value.”

As the retail climate continues to shift and consumers increasingly demand a slick, seamless and more personalised service, retailers must innovate in terms of product and experience. Leadership and structure must also evolve to develop the right customer-centric skillset for the future.


House of Fraser’s new chief executive, Alex Williamson

  • Williamson started his career as an auditor for EY (then Ernst & Young) in 1996. He then had stints at Warner Music and publisher Emap. Williamson joined travel company Tui in 2005 as head of online destination services. In 2008 he joined The Goodwood Group as CFO and became CEO in 2013.
  • House of Fraser executive chairman Frank Slevin said WiIliamson’s appointment was a “bold” but “logical” move to transform the department store group into an experience-led retailer in line with its recent five-year strategy.
  • Slevin praised Williamson for his “track record of delivering customer-focused, engaging and compelling experience” and brushed off any concerns about his lack of retail experience.
  • Williamson will begin his new role as chief executive on 31 July.

Marks & Spencer’s new managing director for clothing, home and beauty, Jill McDonald

  • McDonald began her career as a graduate marketing trainee with Colgate Palmolive. She joined British Airways in 1990 as a brand manager, and worked there for 16 years, rising to head of global marketing. In 2006 she joined McDonald’s as chief marketing officer for the UK and northern Europe. Four years later, McDonald was promoted to CEO of McDonald’s UK and president of north west Europe. In 2015 she joined Halfords as CEO.
  • M&S CEO Steve Rowe said McDonald’s “first-class customer knowledge and great experience in running dynamic, high-achieving teams” make her the right person to lead the fashion and home business from recovery into growth.
  • McDonald’s start date in autumn is yet to be confirmed.



Readers' comments (5)

  • One reason for this move for posts from outside the industry is maybe that the best, smartest thinkers in the clothing trade are the ones that do not get promoted to the biggest positions because they would show up their superiors failings and will not brown nose to get there.

    In all my years I've never seen the cream rise to the top.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • The above comment is so true.
    With many years of experience within the fashion industry, I have witnessed great potential candidates being 'overlooked' for promotion by management - as they are more concerned with their 'egos', than the success of the company.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Traditional retail has seismic change ahead. Leaders now need to be tech savvy with the ability to transition at pace, while keeping the organisation afloat.

    That's a challenge. It's like a role of the captain of a container ship easing through the Panama Canal to captaining a frigate during wartime in hostile waters.

    Skill sets are completely different. The old school go back to basics. Only to find it no longer works.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Every "new" role has failed! Retailing is shop keeping - not tech businesses!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • The change needs to come in how we reorganise our Buying and Merchandising teams to reflect the massive structural shifts that our industry is experiencing. By doing this we will achieve 2 things- the right focus for our teams and the right people within the industry to take on the top jobs.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.